Performance Cuisine

You can't buy a souvenir leather jacket with a hand-painted "Guernica" on the back, but even so, Picasso, the flagship restaurant in the superluxe Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, is the world's fanciest theme restaurant. What sets it apart is that instead of old Abbott and Costello clips and fried mozzarella balls, it's got a dozen Picassos on the walls and an $80 tasting menu that showcases chef Julian Serrano's virtuosity with flan. This is Planet Affluence, a chance to eat foie gras in the presence of $50 million worth of art, and even if you're someone who is nauseated by a painting of a blue woman with both eyes on the same side of her nose... well, at least you're not looking at Eddie Murphy's fat suit from "The Nutty Professor."

If, as owner Steve Wynn believes, Bellagio is the future of Las Vegas, then Picasso represents one trend shaping the future of dining: the ultra-high-concept restaurant. As the availability and appreciation of great food have spread across the land, Americans are abandoning the elitist belief that it must be consumed in dignified surroundings that do not distract from what's on the plate. For decades, American chefs strove to emulate the great Andre Soltner, who ran New York's Lutece on the principle that fresh flowers provided all the visual excitement a restaurant needed. At Picasso, diners who get bored with the art can look out through a glass wall to the busy Las Vegas Strip, across a lake where underwater jets periodically erupt 200 feet into the air in time to show tunes. Of course, it's Las Vegas. But the idea is catching on that exuberant theatricality shouldn't be lavished only on the tank-topped hordes taking snapshots outside the Hard Rock Cafe. "Going out to a restaurant is not just about food," says Adam Tihany, the Transylvanian genius behind the exuberant decor of New York's Le Cirque 2000 and Jean-Georges. "If you're hungry, you could just open the refrigerator, but where's the entertainment in that?"

A decade ago Charlie Palmer opened one of New York's most acclaimed restaurants, Aureole, in an elegant East Side town house. But when Palmer opened Aureole Las Vegas this spring, in the Mandalay Bay Hotel, he wanted elegance with a little pizzazz. So Tihany designed what he calls "a unique and spectacular gesture" right at the entrance to the place, a four-story, glass-enclosed tower holding 10,000 bottles of wine. When a customer requests a bottle, leotard-clad "wine angels" don harnesses and are hoisted up the side--an idea that came to Tihany as he watched Tom Cruise dangle from the ceiling in "Mission Impossible." Besides providing visual drama, this makes a subversive play on the idea that wine must be hidden away in a "cellar." "I guess some wine purists might regard this as blasphemy," Palmer says, unconcerned.

Tihany was not the first to think of using a functional part of the restaurant as a design element. No one does it with more panache than the actor and designer Michael Chow--better known as Mr. Chow, of the eponymous restaurants in London, New York and Beverly Hills, and the new, ultrahip Eurochow in Los Angeles's Westwood. Eurochow has a glass-ceilinged wine cellar that diners can look into and an open kitchen where customers can see the chefs at work. (From certain tables they also can see the busboys scraping plates into the trash, but at least it's Eurotrash.) It has white lacquered walls reflecting more than 600 lighting fixtures, from overhead pinspots to hidden uplights that make acrylic-topped tables glow from within. Soon, with a laptop, Mr. Chow will be able to choose from among 26 preprogrammed levels of lighting from anywhere in the world, according to his mood.

Eurochow even enlists its own customers as design elements. Show up looking fabulous, and you may find yourself at a front mezzanine table for the pleasure of your fellow diners. An overhead camera pans the room, feeding a video monitor near the bar. Unlike restaurants where "the only thing you see is your wife," Mr. Chow says, here you might see someone you know dripping plum sauce on his shirt. In a Planet Hollywood, this would be considered tacky beyond tacky, but at Eurochow it's superbly chic. Of course, it might be Brad Pitt's shirt.

Design also serves as a signifier for cuisine. You walk into Buddakan, one of the hottest new restaurants in Philadelphia, past a shimmering waterfall and Japanese river stones and you say to yourself, "ginger-miso everything," even before you see the magnificent 10-foot Buddha dominating the dining room. Buddakan's Pan-Asian cuisine has gotten good reviews, but as owner Stephen Starr, a former concert promoter, admits: "You could serve the same food in an ugly little box of a restaurant and no one would ever come."

Or you walk into Farallon, on San Francisco's Union Square, and find yourself in designer and co-owner Pat Kuleto's softly-lit undersea fantasy--pebbly ocean floor underfoot, walls of faux coral, chandeliers overhead like giant urchin shells. "I wanted to evoke every subliminal feeling we have about the ocean," says Kuleto. "I wanted to transform fantasy into art." You notice the handblown glass jellyfish suspended over the bar, and you say to yourself: "cocktail of four partly frozen shrimp, bottled sauce." But that's because you're not used to the idea that full-bore psychedelic design can coexist with Sea of Cortez scallops with shaved-fennel-orange salad. Kuleto understands this. "If we offered mediocre Fisherman's Wharf food," he admits, "the place would have just been a joke."

"Total experience" is the new watchword in fine dining, the sum of food, decor and service. "In places like Aureole," Tihany says, "design is a gestalt, conveying symbolically a lifetime of achievement by a four-star chef." Or, as Wynn puts it, "Putting all those Picassos in one room makes for a precious experience, a drop-dead experience." Which is why the new restaurant in his Mirage hotel, which was originally supposed to carry the name of chef Alex Stratta, has a new name and a higher concept. And Wynn is now out shopping for... Renoirs.